Is the future of conversation silent?

“I am delighted to be chairing this session on The Future of Conversation at the Fusion Conference! We humans adapt readily to advances in technology, and as a result the digital revolution has caused a huge change in the way we communicate.  Sarah is raising a big question that affects all of us involved in qualitative research, and the AQR is delighted to be collaborating with ESOMAR in exploring what best practice looks like in this new context.” -AQR Chair Lyn McGregor

There’s no doubt that the way we communicate has rapidly changed, with over half of the global population now having access to the internet and 42% using social media. We are increasingly using digital platforms to talk, share ideas and express our feelings. But what does this means for qualitative researchers?

In this three part series I will tell you: 1. the implications of an increase of the written word in digital communications; 2. how we can interpret and understand visual communication; 3. how we can best leverage all this user generated data.

Hopefully this series will inspire you to join me at ESOMAR Fusion in November, where I’ll be running a Masterclass on this topic.

Act 1: The written word

Much of what we communicate digitally is written down. Written communication online is a challenge for qualitative researchers because much of the training, skills, lexicon and theory we use is grounded in engineering and interpreting verbal (and non-verbal) communication in harmony.  Alongside listening, and interpreting the spoken word, observation and interpretation of non-verbal communication is an incredibly important aspect of what we do (both as researchers and human beings!). And obviously, this is missing from written words.

There’s also a challenge for us because writing down our thoughts and feelings, is different to saying them out loud, and being observed doing so (either in situ or on video).  When we communicate verbally we may be less considered, more fluid and potentially more free thinking. When we type, we arguably have more time to edit and reshape sentences, review our tone and carefully choose our words.[i] As such we may have greater fear of accountability, judgement or greater privacy concerns. This poses a challenge for us as research practitioners in both how we design methodologies and how we interpret and make sense of written data we gather.

Longer dialogue is being usurped by bite size digital interactions

The nature of written digital conversation is different. According to Facebook we are messaging more than ever, and this is a global trend. WhatsApp and Messenger are the elements of the Facebook portfolio which are seeing the fastest growth. And beyond Facebook, this trend continues with clear growth in platforms that facilitate bite size interactions. Digital conversation is becoming shorter and sharper. And this is particularly the case for younger people.

Does this change indicate a shift in consumer’s comfort zone for self-expression?

There is also a major challenge for us as researchers in how participants feel about taking part in our research.  As we converse more through a written medium, the arena in which our research participants may be most comfortable expressing their ideas, thoughts and feelings may migrate to the online world.

So more broadly, we may see that expectations of communication change, not just because of a shift in the place where consumers feel most in their emotional comfort zone but also because this has become the norm for so many of our interactions. And they may increasingly expect all aspects of life to follow suit, including research. In this context, it’s important to question how people will relate to moderators: do they feel more or less comfortable sharing their opinions? Do they feel more or less anonymous?

What about culture?

Alongside this there is the cultural challenge this poses. Conversation moving from being verbal to written in a digital medium could make a huge difference. We have learned about the cultural differences across markets in how people express themselves verbally (and non-verbally) in groups, depths, and other face to face interactions etc. but what about when we ask them to write down their ideas, opinions, thoughts, feelings etc. What are the implications of this that we need to be aware of?

In summary…

The move from conversation to the written word is potentially a major challenge for qualitative research. It has implications for how we collect data, how we interpret it and how we help our clients solve problems and understand the world.

An increase of the written word is just one trend we need to consider as qualitative researchers. A second is the ascendance of visual media, a theme which I’ll discuss in Act 2 of this series – communication is increasingly visual.

Sarah De Caux

Head of Spirit, Join the Dots

[i] https://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/31/fashion/texting-anxiety-caused-by-little-bubbles.html, accessed 10/8/18 at 3pm.

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